You may not know this, but I love Christmas. Looooooove Christmas. It’s my favorite time of the year, and as happens every year, I have again been swept up in nostalgic fervor. My childhood memories of wintertime have always been almost magical, and it always makes me a little giddy inside when I finally turn the calendar page to December. It’s like opening a fairy tale book very few other people seem to see. My own little secret world.
With all the controversy over how the holidays are acknowledged, celebrated, and fought over here in the U.S., I thought it’d be nice to do something that brings people together rather than push them apart. So for this post on the feast day of St. Lucy, no less, I’d like to share some of the traditions and stories that make my Christmas special. And I’d like to invite you all to share your own in the comments, or on your own website/blog. 🙂
I wanted to be thorough, so I actually did a little research and found some old folk traditions that are no longer observed, but still give me a sense of history and warmth. When I say I inwardly celebrate Christmas all month long, I’m not exaggerating. In my home country of Slovakia, the fun starts early and ends late in a glorious blend of pagan and Christian traditions that seriously blur the line, which I absolutely love. Check it out:
December 4th: Feast Day of St. Barbara
According to legend, St. Barbara was a young maiden who was to be married off to a non-Christian. She refused to give up her faith for the marriage and as a result was tortured to death. On her feast day, the tradition was for women to dress in all white, with a white veil concealing their faces, and go door to door in their village. They would symbolically sweep the room of evil, pray with the family who lived there, and give children gifts. Good children got presents of sweets or small toys, and bad children got brooms. Another tradition was for maidens to cut a branch from the cherry tree and put it in water. Counting the days until it bloomed would reveal the luckiest days for the next year. For Christmas mass, they would stick the blooming branch through their belts at their backs. Bachelors would then take the branch and attach it to their hats as decoration to declare their feelings. (Awwww…)
December 6th: Feast Day of St. Nicholas
Another martyr from way back when, who has a number of legends associated with him, including one almost Christ-like, in which he was killed and when his friends went to prepare the body for burial, they discovered the body was gone, because he’d risen from the dead. The better known ones include him being the patron saint of wealth, happy marriages, and children. Young maidens prayed to him for a good husband, and he was said to have raised children from the dead, or helped women through difficult labor. This is why he is mostly associated with children. On this day, the tradition was that St. Nicholas would walk through town, dressed in traditional bishop’s robes and hat, with an entourage of people in costume. This was later condensed to two companions: an angel dressed in all white, and a devil dressed in black, with a fur vest and chain belt. Children would pray with St. Nick, and the trio would dole out candies and presents to good children and berate the bad ones. On the evening of December 5th, children would clean their boots spotless and place one on the windowsill (similar to stockings hanging from the fireplace). On the morning of December 6th, the boot would be filled with sweets, kind of like a mini Christmas morning. This was also the day that started off Christmas markets in town where all sorts of traditional foods and hand-made arts and crafts were sold. This is one of my favorite things to see in December.
December 13th: Feast Day of St. Lucy
This day is associated with warding off of evil spirits. It was believed that these needed to be frightened away by loud noises so people would make a ruckus in their homes, and at crossroads where witches were thought to gather. It was forbidden to weave on this day because evil spirits would swarm the woman doing it to ruin her work. Also people were forbidden from wandering the fields and chopping wood in the forest for fear of being met with misfortune. Ironically, for all that fear of witches and evil, magic itself was embraced. For example, one tradition was for men to begin making a stepping stool on this day, adding another element every day until Christmas mass. When they sat/stood on it during the mass, they had the ability to see all the witches in the church. Women, on the other hand, would write the names of 12 eligible men on pieces of paper, adding 1 blank one and fold them all up. Every day, they were to burn one of them until only one was left on Christmas that would reveal the name of their future husband. (Or, if they got the blank one, it meant they’d die old maids) I have done this. It never worked out the way I wanted… LOL
December 24th: Christmas Eve
In Slovakia, Christmas is actually a 3-day thing, and it’s very much a family affair. On the 24th, the day before Christ’s birth, the tradition was to decorate the Christmas tree and cook and bake all the Christmas goodies. The family would fast all day, until the first star appeared in the sky, and then conclude with a traditional Christmas Eve dinner and the opening of presents. The dinner table was the biggest tradition. Certain foods were a must. The main course was sauerkraut soup with home made sausage, mushrooms picked in the summer and dried for winter, and smoked meats, followed by fish and potato salad. But on the table had to always be 7 different foods, each with its own significance (which I don’t really remember… but they have to do with wealth, luck and prosperity): apples, nuts, honey, garlic, dried peas, bread, and cakes. It was required to put money underneath the table cloth and keep it there until after New Year’s so you’d have money in the new year. After dinner, the family opened presents. Yes, Christmas eve was present time. In my family, the kids would be shooed out of the room before dinner to go wash up and change. When the bell rang, we’d all rush in to find the lights turned off, the tree shining bright, and presents piled up underneath. It always felt like magic, even when I knew my parents had put them there. The more religious families would then attend midnight mass.
December 25th and 26th: First and Second Christmas Feast Days
These days were reserved for extended families. Parents would take their children to visit grandparents or other relatives. It was a time to reknit old ties, spend time together, reminisce, and enjoy the holidays. For these days, the traditional food is roast duck (just a side note FYI 😉 ). My family is kind of clannish on my mom’s side. We’d take turns spending Christmas Eve at our place, then at my uncles, then at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. There were always huge platters of ten to twenty different types of cookies and cakes. We have special Chrismas candies that get hung on the tree, but they usually didn’t last past Christmas Eve. If some did survive, the kids would fight over them, sneaking off to steal them out of their wrappers and twisting the papers back so they looked untouched. We’d watch marathons of Christmas movies, fairy tales and traditional ones, play with our new toys, or play cards. There was always thick, yummy eggnog (made with eggs, sweetened, condensed milk, and rum or vodka), and did I mention the cookies?
December 31th: New Year’s Eve
Lots of traditions for this day. Poor women would go door to door and symbolically sweep out the hearth flue so it would burn well all through the year. Young men would dress up as old women and visit houses with marriageable daughters. They’d be rewarded after their visit with a dinner feast. When cleaning, dirt had to be swept into the corner so someone wouldn’t “sweep themselves out the door” (as in, die). Certain household tasks were forbidden, such as hanging of laundry for fear that it portended a bad death. Also, people were supposed to pay off all old debts so as not to go into the new year burdened by the past. And it was said that whatever you dreamed on the night of New Year’s Eve would come true.
January 1st: New Year’s Day
Still not done! Boy, these Slovaks are superstitious people! On New Year’s day, it was bad luck for an old woman to be the first to step foot into a home when visiting someone. It was also a bad omen for that first person to be an old man in a coat. Furthermore, one could not enter another’s home on this day empty-handed. They had to bring something, like cookies, a bottle of alcohol, or money, which symbolized that they brought wellness and wealth, not harm to the household. And if that wasn’t enough, they also had to recite a blessing upon entering to wish the family a good, bountiful new year. The tradition became for young boys and men to go door to door to recite said wish after midnight to prevent any accidental bout of bad luck from breaking the above traditions. They were rewarded for this service with a coin, or Christmas cookies. Throughout the day, the saying went, “As on New Year’s Day, so all year long.” That mean whatever happened on this day would be repeated throughout the year. Arguments were to be avoided. The house had to be kept clean and tidy. Bad habits needed to be curbed. Pigs represented wealth, and were therefore consumed in the form of ham or a whole roast pig to welcome wealth for the entire year. Poultry, on the other hand, was avoided, as it can fly, which symbolized money and luck flying out the window. Other foods included peas and lentils, which represent money (coins).
January 6th: Feast of The Three Kings
Aaaand still not done. This feast day effectively ended the Christmas season and was symbolized by young boys and men dressing up as the Three Kings and going door to door to spread well wishes and pray over the household. They would write the initials of the three kings and the year in white chalk on the door frame to mark the occasion. In more pagan traditions, young girls would rise before the sun to wash their faces with snow, which was meant to ensure clear, pale skin (Snow White, anyone?). The evening was reserved for fortune telling. Two people would light candles of the same length to find out who would die first (hint: it was the one whose candle burned down the fastest). Depending on how the smoke moved (up or down), they could tell whether their soul would go to heaven or hell. In addition, a game was played in which seven items were each placed into a mug and covered. People would then choose a mug and from its contents foretold what awaited them in the future: a coin meant wealth, a comb meant lack/dearth, a ring meant a wedding, a piece of cloth meant travel, a doll meant the birth of a child, a piece of bread meant having contentment and enough of everything, and a piece of coal meant illness or death. In my family, this day is the saddest of all. It’s the day we take down the Christmas tree, because it’s bad luck to keep it up any longer.
Okay, your turn!
How do you celebrate the holidays? Do you have a favorite tradition or dish? What is your most cherished childhood memory of Christmas? 🙂